Joanna & C

I’m honored and delighted to have Joanna here today, adding to the conversation about having a wedding with divorced parents, and the conversation about the ways that weddings, trying as they are, can offer healing. Beyond that, Joanna makes it so clear that the wedding is not the end, it’s just the beginning of something really great.

After we got married a year and a half ago, I was excited to write my wedding grad post and share all the amazing things that happened. But it never really gelled. And for a long time I felt like all the stuff I had to say about our wedding/being newly married had been said by others. Which was maybe annoying at first, and then a relief to realize I didn’t need to add anything. Then this discussion about divorced parents started. And the ladies had great things to say. But I still feel there was something missing, something that I can share.

Before he proposed, my brilliant and thoughtful fiancé (now husband) called each of my parents to ask permission to marry me. I had hinted during that pre-engagement time that he needed to ask my dad if he was thinking of proposing. When it came down to it, he said it didn’t feel right not asking the woman who raised me singlehandedly for most of my young life for her approval. Smart move.

Once wedding planning started, we made a point of asking all three sets of parents how they wanted to be involved in the wedding. C’s parents (still married and very straightforward) and my mom offered to help with anything including money. My dad quickly offered that if we got married in their town, where all my half-siblings live, they would all chip in with food and space and save us a bundle of money. After deliberating the options what felt like forever, we finally settled on holding the wedding in the town where we live, because the idea of planning a wedding cross-country made my blood pressure spike. Once we decided that, my mom confessed that she was terrified we would choose to do it in “their” space. Instead, we chose an option that was equally inconvenient, and neutral, for everybody – across the country, in our space.

Since my mother is single and my father is remarried, some interesting issues emerged as the wedding day approached. My dad kept telling me how excited he was about seeing my mom and her side of the family. My mom, however, kept sharing how afraid she was about what she might feel when she got there, and how it would look for her to be single.

Intentionally, we filled their respective reception tables with my parents’ favorite relatives, who they had a blast hanging out with. By that point, it didn’t actually matter anymore. It was mostly important for my mom to know ahead of time that she’d have those people there, sort of as a buffer if it was needed. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

Since our families are from opposite sides of the continent (C’s a Canadian), the first meeting of the parents was planned to be two nights before the wedding. The day of, my mom thought it would be weird and found a way to be busy picking up relatives at the airport at the time we were going to meet for dinner. So, my dad and stepmom represented. We all returned from dinner to meet and greet out of town guests at the hotel. Immediately after my mom arrived, my parents sat down together to chat—and didn’t get up for two hours!

While I worked the patio saying hi to everyone, I kept checking on them, trying to figure out what was going on. First they were laughing, then in deep conversation, and toward the end of the night they were talking, smiling and looking relaxed. When I asked my mom later what that was all about, she said that, as they like to say, I am the best thing they ever did together. And apparently had a lot to discuss given that their only child was about to wed. Once the rubber hit the road, so to speak, they could see eye to eye on celebrating this huge event in my life, and in some ways it was a success that only they two could really share.

I only planned to see my mom and stepmom before the wedding, at the hair salon where we were all getting ready. I had planned to have a moment of silence with my bridesmaids and my mom at the ceremony site when we arrived. Magically, my two half-sisters and my dad all ended up at the right place at the time, and joined right in. They all put their hands on me and said their wishes for our wedding. It was intensely grounding on such an intensely mind-blowing day.

So. Our ceremony. I agree with others that the ceremony is clearly the most important part of a wedding (duh?). First of all, we had talked about getting married on the beach for years, but we don’t actually live near the ocean (much to my general chagrin). So once we had decided to do this thing in our town, I thought we needed to create a “beach” to stand on and get married! We asked all of our parents to bring a jar of dirt or sand from the place where they live – where we grew up – and didn’t tell them why. Then, at the very beginning of the ceremony, our pastor invited each of them up to pour their sand on the altar. We then took off our shoes and stood in the sand, now all mixed together, while we said our vows and exchanged our rings. Our pastor talked about how where we come from is just as important as where we are going. And he talked about how just like this sand, we now married could never truly be separated. And as part of the ceremony, we scooped up some of the sand and put it in a small jar that we now keep in our bedroom alongside our wedding pictures.

After everyone had left the ceremony, each of our parents quietly filled jars of the mixed sand to take with them. The rest of the day was what it should have been: memorable, fun, and peaceful. And, above all, it felt immensely joyful, and joyful for everyone. Not just those who happened to be “doing well” on the marriage scale.

I realize not every child of divorced parents will get what we got. I was lucky. It helps that 20 years have gone by since my parents’ divorce… that my dad brought a positive attitude to the “reunion”… and that I’ve worked hard to keep my relationships with my parents strong and not hide them from one another. But what I learned from my wedding is that the joy you bring is contagious, and the relationships you honor—both of your old family and your new family—will flourish in all that joy.

And when families are larger, or more complicated, finding ways to involve each of the parents may help alleviate some of their stress about having to share the day. At the ceremony, my dad walked me down the aisle. My mom did a reading. Both sets of my parents stood up to say the whole “we bring this woman” thing. Everybody got their own moments in the sun, so I think it was easier for them to share the spotlight.

Having divorced parents means, at the very least, that you have some negative associations with marriage. My dad has been married five times total; mom, twice. Most of the marriages I’ve seen have involved fighting, people losing themselves, and divorce tearing families apart. For me, those experiences left me with core-freezing fears about marriage.

The other day, basically out of nowhere, I turned to the hubs and said, “You know, marriage is really not that scary!” And he said smiling, “I told you!”

Now that I’ve reached the other side of this marriage thing, I realize that being married doesn’t mean slogging through the pain of dealing with another person until you can no longer take it. It isn’t necessarily this hard, scary thing. It turns out that marriage can be immensely joyful, light, freeing. That a good marriage solidifies a fabulous relationship that’s so much fun you can’t imagine living without it. Like ours did.

Photos By: Restoring Memories Photography

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  • Anon

    I have a half-written grad post saved on my computer and this says everything I wanted to say and more and is much more eloquent. As a child of divorce, I wish I could have read this prior to our wedding. Thanks so much for sharing.

  • Anonymous

    Beautifully written post! This is my first time posting and I hesitate to do so as I will not contribute to the conversation, however I have to ask: where did you get your dress? It is stunning!

    • Jo

      David’s Bridal special, right here! Want it? :) I need to do something with it before we move in a month. Ha ha, shall I do a Dress Given….?

  • This is very touching. I love the adaptation of the sand ceremony where the sand was supplied by your parents – such a beautiful symbol.

    And kudos for your husband for asking a blessing of both mum and dad!

    • My father is not in the picture, so my husband asked my mom and my pastor, who is practically my “big brother”. It was such a sweet sentiment. I’ve read posts by guys about how they think it’s ridiculous because “they don’t own their future wife”, but I think it’s a monumental sign of respect. These people can often see things we don’t, so permission and a blessing means so much.

      (especially after you’ve been divorced once. WHEW.)

  • Gillian

    beautiful! the part about your parents celebrating you as the best thing they ever did together had me all teary eyed. congrats!

  • Oh man, this was so, so meaningful…. I LOVED this post, thank you so much for writing it! Especially the part about how your wedding was a success that only your parents could really share? Whoa! So true, I never thought of it that way. And the sand during your ceremony? Brilliant!!!! This post was all kinds of awesome. Congrats :-)

  • This wedding is a fantastic example of how everything can go well if everyone behaves like mature adults. (Imagine!) Even though there were understandable anxieties, Joanna’s parents behaved well and Joanna really made an effort to make everyone feel accepted. Bad feelings from divorce can be hugely amplified at a wedding, but as long as everyone remembers that they love the bride/groom, things don’t have to be filled with drama. Such a lovely, thoughtful post.

  • Jo

    Your venue is awesome!

    The sand is genius, touches my heart deeply.

  • If Joanna can’t come to the beach, the beach can come to Joanna!

  • carrie

    What a lovely post. I loved the sand/dirt that you stood on in place of a beach – so meaningful. A beautiful post and a beautiful day – congrats to having such an awesome day and an awesome marriage!

  • I *adore* the sand in your ceremony! Our ceremony was the very last thing I planned (our Pastor would ask & I’d say “Ummm…. can I get back to you???”) but was my very favorite part. We picked readings that symbolized who we are, drank wine to our past, present & future lives together from our very favorite bottle, and included so many blessings reflecting our heritages. My bouquet had jewels from family members past on both sides, put together by both our moms.

    Even with divided families (in my case, my father was not allowed anywhere near the site), it’s both important and beautiful to bring them all together for a wedding. You aren’t just uniting two people – you are uniting two whole, defunct, large families. Finding ways to bring them together is always, always awesome. And I love, love, love how you did it.

    • That bouquet idea is beautiful and if you don’t mind I might just borrow it. Was a fantastic (and blingy) tribute.

      • By all means! If you click over to my blog & blow up my profile picture listed on the side, you can get a better look. They were felt flowers (we had 8 bouquets, 7 boutonnieres, and 3 corsages, so it took about 4 months) with buttons and jewelry. My bouquet was one of my favorite pieces in the wedding (it even had a pin from my great-great grandmother, circa 1800s!) and everyone was drooling to catch one during the bouquet toss!

  • Stephasaurus

    It’s been 20+ years since my fiance’s parents divorced too. His dad remarried, his mom didn’t, and they’re all on good terms. I’m so grateful there’s no bitterness between any of them, because I know that’ll be so helpful when it comes to our wedding stuff (also his mom, who’s in her 60s, actually JUST got engaged a few days ago, which is freaking adorable…so yay for that!)

    I also love the sand thing. Such an awesome idea!

  • Chantelle

    Awesome post! I loved the sand ceremony. And can I just say, you know it’s a par-tay when there are guests in the fountain :D

  • “But what I learned from my wedding is that the joy you bring is contagious, and the relationships you honor—both of your old family and your new family—will flourish in all that joy.”

    So true! I second that surprising miracles can happen with that kind of joy and intention. Thanks, Joanna, for articulating this so beautifully.

  • Megan

    I am deeply grateful that you shared your realization that marriage isn’t really so scary. I have been engaged since January and about every two weeks I have an attack of gut wrenching fear. I get panicked and start thinking about running. All this about marrying a man who is fiercely loyal and makes me a better happier person. Being scared isn’t something I feel ok talking about because I know that many of my friends, despite being supportive and fantastic, just won’t understand my squirmy fear. It certainly isn’t helped by the ongoing mudslinging and painful deterioration of my relationship with my recently remarried father. But your realization gives me so much hope about forging ahead despite the visceral fear. Thank you.

  • “When I asked my mom later what that was all about, she said that, as they like to say, I am the best thing they ever did together.”

    Such a great sentiment. Thank you for writing.

    • This line really resonated with me as it’s the exact hope of many divorced kids that their parents can view their past relationship this way. It warms my divorced kid heart that your parents shared this sentiment at such an important time for you: your wedding :-)

  • What a great post. I’m glad that you ended up being able to enjoy the day and not stress about your parents, and I’m glad that your parents were able to come together to celebrate as well . . . it’s great when parents can look at the people that they’ve raised and enjoy themselves just as much as their children.

  • Shawna

    What an excellent post. My parents had a horrible marriage for 20 years and decided to get divorced a few months before my wedding. Let’s just say it was not what I would have planned in terms of timing. But, I too have realized that marriage is not all that scary. In fact, it just sorta seems like the natural progression of a relationship I wouldn’t want to do without. Thanks for sharing!

  • Sarah R.

    Your sand ceremony had me all teary! That is such a beautiful interpretation and fit perfectly for the two of you.

    Also, I love the people in the fountain. That is just plain awesome.

  • Steph & B

    Thank you so much. This gives me hope and more encouragement to try and talk to both my parents about our wedding again. My parents have been divorced for 18 years now, but there is still so much nastiness in that relationship. I want both my dad and my mom to walk me down the aisle, but my stepmom has insisted that it would devastate my dad and that I shouldn’t even ask him. I want my wedding to be something where they can both come together and celebrate. I had hoped that my high school or college graduations would be that moment, but alas, I spent most of my time running interference between the two. I refuse to do so on the wedding day.

    I’m so happy that your parents came together to celebrate your day. And the sand idea. Absolutely beautiful.

  • Cristina

    “It isn’t necessarily this hard, scary thing. It turns out that marriage can be immensely joyful, light, freeing.” I love this! I have only been married for a (very) short while, but I have found it to be true so far, and I hope to feel this way always (or almost always).

    Congratulations to you both, on a wonderful first year and a half of marriage. My parents are married but my husband’s are divorced, so I can imagine some of the issues that can arise. Good work pulling it off so smoothly!

  • emily rose

    Two parts really struck me:

    “And, above all, it felt immensely joyful, and joyful for everyone. Not just those who happened to be “doing well” on the marriage scale.”

    I worried a lot, before our wedding, about other peoples’ experiences. It took me a while to accept that those experiences were totally out of my control – and also pretty unpredictable. Some of the least-happily-married guests seemed to feel the most joy.

    “…being married doesn’t mean slogging through the pain of dealing with another person until you can no longer take it. It isn’t necessarily this hard, scary thing. It turns out that marriage can be immensely joyful, light, freeing.”

    I also come from a family wrought with divorce, and I had to rewrite my unconscious expectation that marriage would automatically & immediately make me miserable. In reality, I’ve actually discovered mostly ease and freedom and peace.

  • Anonymous Coward

    Going anonymous for this, sorry gals. I really need to get this off my chest, and I have several friends/family members who also read this blog from day to day.

    I am a child of divorce. I’ve been surrounded by divorce for most of my life, actually. My father has been married 4+ times (we don’t know the actual number; my dad is fuzzy on the details), my mother has been married 3 times. My brother is in his 30’s and just got through a very messy divorce. My step-sister also had a very messy divorce in her early 30’s.

    Surprisingly enough, this has never made me doubt marriage, for myself. I’m really thankful for that. I know that divorce is always a chance, but I haven’t jaded myself from the idea of a life long commitment. I’ve always been an optimist.

    That being said…. I am fucking TERRIFIED of getting married. Not because of what it will do to me or my FH, but having to have my parents in the same room. They divorced over… wow, over 13 years ago. Their divorce and relationship after said divorce could probably go down in history as one of the most hostile & bitter feuds since the Montagues & Capulets took to the streets of Verona. Thankfully, we’ve yet to see bloodshed. But to say that there is tension between them (and their families) is the understatement of the year. My mother & her entire family hate my father’s guts. My father’s family is rather indifferent to them, but my dad has a tendency to make VERY inappropriate jokes sometimes, which make things worse sevenfold. (There was actually an incident on Facebook *rant for another day* where I literally wound up in tears because my father and mother started fighting on a status update of mine, and I had to call them both & tell them if they couldn’t behave like adults, I would delete them both off of my friends list, and they would just have to deal with it. Yes, these are adults in their 50’s & 60’s.) I still remember my high school graduation and how stressed out I was (I was only seventeen!) because I had to ensure that my mother & younger sister sat at opposite ends of the bleachers from my dad & his wife, to make sure there was no fighting. My mom skipped out on my graduation party because it was at my dad’s house, though I managed to get my sister to stay, so long as I kept her and my dad separated. So you can imagine what kind of anxiety attacks I feel over the idea of having both families in the same room, mere tables away from each other.

    Parents are supposed to act like adults. They’re supposed to be mature and set an example for the youngsters. But what do you do when they just won’t? I’ve already told my FH (we’re in that pre-engaged state) that when we get married, I am going to sit both my mom and my dad (and all of my other family members) down and tell them that if they can’t be on their best behavior, they are going to get thrown out, no exceptions. But I don’t want to have to stress about that on the day I’m getting married. I want to be able to focus on starting a beautiful new journey with the man I love.

    Blargh. I’ve been loving these Wedding Graduate posts about kids with divorced parents, but none of them have really reassured me. Joanna, you are so blessed to have two parents who love you & support you, and were able to be friends through your wedding. I don’t dare hope that my parents will do the same, but I can always hope they can at least be civil.

    /end rant/

    • Erin

      I feel you! My parents have been divorced for 17 years (same number they were married!), and they literally have not been in the same room since then. They haven’t even spoken, as far as I know, since my sister & I (or lawyers) were in charge of passing on all communication from the start (at ages 10 & 12!). I have had two of everything since then: two Christmases, two high school graduation celebrations, two college graduations…Now neither of them has even mentioned the other in years, and neither has asked about the other since the wedding planning began (except for my mom asking how much my dad was spending, argh!). I know they will be civil…they love me too much not to be. But I am terrified of that moment when they will all be there together and the awkwardness ensues….

      *Crickets chirping…sound I imagine as my parents see one another for the first time in 17 years*

      …Do I make introductions? Where will everyone sit? How will I make sure no one feels slighted? These posts have all been very upbeat and optimistic, but I feel like I need some serious specific advice here, or I just might have a nervous breakdown trying to figure it all out!

      • Anonymous Coward

        Exactly. I feel like there needs to be a Practical support group for children of divorced parents that simply have little to no chance of ever being civil/functional.

    • emily rose

      Wow, that sounds ROUGH. I’ve been through some divorces myself and I just want to say I’m sorry that your parents act that way, and I know it sucks. Here are a couple tips that helped me a lot at my recent wedding:

      -Assign bodyguards. We had a few friends who knew about all the potential crazies and were in charge of keeping them in line; one groomsman had to follow around and constantly strike up friendly conversations with an unpredictable parent, a few guests literally had photographs of another parent to make sure no drunken mishaps occured.
      -Assign seating. Make sure people who need to be separated are separated, seat them near people who can keep the crazy under control, and choose buffer guests in between.

      Most importantly, do whatever you need to do to protect your own experience. For me, that meant handing my cell phone to my little brother when my mother started sending a series of inappropriate text messages at 2pm on my wedding day. That’ll mean different things for different contexts, but I think for the most part it will require that you lean on friends/family for help. That help can be really healing even when the parent drama doesn’t change.

      • Anonymous Coward

        Thanks for the advice, it’s really appreciated. I definitely plan to have “body guards”. I have, over the years, collected several big, strong guy friends who have adopted me as their little sister of sorts, and I know they’d be glad to throw anyone out on their keister who tried to “ruin my day”. Passing off the phone is something I know I’ll have to do, though it will be VERY difficult as I am a Type A person/planner, and need to know what’s happening all the time, but I know that if I want to actually enjoy myself, I have to compromise.

        As far as seating charts go… OH YES. That was never even a question for me. I don’t even have a ring on my hand, and I’m already plotting out who to sit with my mom at “her” table, and who to sit with my dad at “his” table, so I don’t have to worry about either one of them getting bored/feeling left out, and starting an argument with the other. Strategically placing those two tables on opposite corners of the room might help, too…

        Hah. Well, what can you do? If they’re determined to cause trouble, they will. But I just hope they’ll be able to keep it together for one day.

  • Becca

    I know this isn’t the point of the entry…but did you have your guests play kazoos during the procession down the aisle? My fiance proposed this idea and I thought it sounded a little crazy, plus I don’t want to impose on guests.

    How did it work out?

    • Jo

      We had them kazoo the recessional – The Wedding March, and they were led by a violinist who played the tune as she walked out (in case people didn’t know how to hum it). We wanted to end the ceremony on a playful note, and it did just the trick. The processional was played by someone on the acoustic guitar, and was a bit more subdued. :)

      We placed a basket of kazoos at the entrance with the programs, and then put a note saying – if you want to help us march out of here, grab a kazoo and join in at the end of the ceremony. That way it was up to them whether or not to participate. And we asked some specific people to please make sure and kazoo nice and loudly so it wouldn’t be silent!

  • melissa

    I love this positive spin on things. I was very proud of my dad at my reception. He was very polite and cordial to my mother, his ex-wife. He seemed genuinely happy to see her and just enjoy my day with her. Unfortunately, she felt the need to be as bitter and snide as she could be to both of her ex-husbands that were in attendance, my dad and my step-dad. It doesn’t change how great my dad treated everybody and I can definitely relate with how good that felt.

  • busy day at work and thought I’d just skim through the post, but knew I would have to comment once I teared up… the “beach” at the altar was such a beautiful idea, I absolutely loved it and I just had to share that. :) Congrats!

  • The end of this post almost made me cry. My husband and I come from families where all parents have been divorced multiple times, and it made me scared for us and how well we’d handle marriage. But a year-and-three-quarters in (but 6 years of living together), I sometimes catch myself breathing the same sigh of relief – there are some rough days and things to work through, but marriage is not hard and awful like all the examples we were given. It is fun and awesome!

  • Beautiful story, jo! Miss you!

  • Pingback: Wedding Graduates: Joanna & C « A Practical Wedding: Ideas for … | Planning A Wedding()

  • Amanda

    The sand/dirt in your ceremony was so touching! I love, love that idea.

  • Erin

    Hi there: I realize this post is several months old but I couldn’t resist sending a thank-you. I just recently happened upon this site and your story rings so true. I have a Mom who re-married and a Dad who is on his fourth re-marriage. Lucky for me they do act as adults, having separated when I was 8 years old. Unfortunate for my husband to be that his parents only just divorced, and he has a possible +1 coming with his Mom (but not one joining his Dad). I’ve no idea how this will go, although it sounds like just going-with-the-flow and letting adults be adults is a possible route to success.

    I also liked the way you described your reception – it is the opposite of expecting it to be a raucous event, where everyone has the time of their lives (although the photos do suggest your guests had an amazing time).

    Thanks for your perspective!